Back in that critical year of 1990, when YHB was discovering jazz, classical, world and uncategorizable forms of music of all stripes, there was a stretch of delving deeply back to early recorded jazz. This meant the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, King Oliver, Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton and some early blues, particularly Bessie Smith.
At that time, however, a new boxset was released by Columbia Records and its "Roots 'N Blues" series that provided the complete recordings of Robert Johnson. Though not having heard any of his songs, YHB was familiar with the rudiments of the Johnson legend.
Namely, that Johnson, a native of Hazlehurst, Mississippi, a town now of about 4.500 people south of the state capital of Jackson, was a competed harmonica player and singer, but after living closer to Memphis in the far northwest corner of the state, he returned to his home area a spectacular guitarist. It was said that he accomplished this through the proverbial "devil's bargain," selling his soul in exchange for his newfound musical talents.
Of course, it seems more likely that Johnson found other musicians from whom he could learn and it was said he emulated the style of the great Son House and took direct instruction from Ike Zimmerman, who was said to have acquired his abilities via supernatural agency playing in graveyards in the late hours.
In any case, Johnson toured throughout the Mississippi Delta regions in Mississippi, Arkansas, Tennessee and Louisiana, but also performed in St. Louis, Chicago, New York and other farflung places. In 1936, he was given the chance to cut his first recordings in a converted hotel room in San Antonio. Over three days that November, Johnson recorded sixteen songs and alternate takes. Of these, only two appearing on each side a 78-rpm record were released in his lifetime. The A-side was "Terraplane Blues," backed with "Last Fair Deal Gone Down" and the release was through the Vocalion label. This recording was a modest succes, tallying 5,000 sales in a regional market that served only blacks in the Jim Crow South.
In Dallas in June 1937, over two days, Johnson recorded another thirteen songs and some alternate takes. In all, his recording career consisted of 41 surviving recordings of 29 pieces. Four of these are included in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's 500 songs considered to be essential to the form. Two, "Sweet Home Chicago" and "Cross Road Blues", were from the San Antonio sessions and the others, "Hell Hound on My Trail" and "Love in Vain Blues" came from Dallas. These are certainly remarkable and representative pieces, though there are more in the collection to treasure. This includes the very first piece Johnson record, "Kind Hearted Woman Blues," "I Believe I'll Dust My Broom," "Come on in My Kitchen," "I'm A Steady Rollin' Man," and "Traveling Riverside Blues." Lyrically, there is plenty of the usual sexual double entendres, but also some surprisingly reflective observations and the darker, intenser variety, as well.
Johnson's guitar playing features all manner of impressive technical devices for the day, from bottleneck slides, to chunky rhythmic figures, and rapid, precise picking and it is small wonder that so many blues and rock guitarists to follow would cite him as a prime influence. Even with the primitive recording techniques of small-label 1930s products, Johnson's fluidity, power, flexibility and inventivenes are truly remarkable.
Sadly, Johnson may have been on the verge of a discovery by a much larger national audience when John Hammond, the famed talent scout for Columbia Records, was recruiting performers for his "Spirituals to Swing" concert at Carnegie Hall in late 1938 and asked for Johnson to be located for the performance, only to learn that the bluesman had died the previous August.
The circumstances of Johnson's death are, like most of his life story, murky, but it has been claimed that he was poisoned by the jealous husband of one of the many women Johnson looked to seduce in his career. In any case, Johnson died on 16 August after a bout of vomiting and pneumonia, though his death certificate did not list a cause of death. This, of course, only added to the speculation.
It has been often said by and of musicians that you can learn more about them through their music than any other source. In the case of Robert Johnson, there wouldn't be much choice anyway, given that so little of his life is known. Then again, it is really impossible to know how much of his lyrics were personal and how much literary (if that term fits.)
What is certain is that few, if any, blues musicians have had the legacy and influence of Robert Johnson, even if the legend might be so pronounced that other masters of the style are comparatively overlooked. For YHB, this dabbling in the blues (and attendance at one blues festival in the mid-90s) was short-lived and stopped with Johnson . . . until recently. In recent months, recordings by Howlin' Wolf, John Lee Hooker, B. B. King, Muddy Waters and Leadbelly have been given long-overdue attention and will be covered here down the road.
In the meantime, The Complete Recordings of Robert Johnson still retain a powerful impact for this listener, over two decades since the compilation was issued.